1968: The Year 0f the Miracles!

Submitted by AWL on 24 July, 2008 - 6:40 Author: Sean Matgamna

It was as if a conscience-stricken god said to himself one day in the mid-60s: “I suppose I have been a bit rough on the poor old Trots; setback after setback, massacre after massacre, blow after blow, for four decades now....

... There aren’t all that many of them left. If I don’t do something to encourage them soon, they’ll give up and die off. And think of all the fun they’ve given me, thwarting them — the presumptuous little buggers!”

Then he had A thought: “Why don’t I give them a bit of encouragement?” So he did.

Over a three year period, culminating in 1968-9, he organised a series of great events that would point people in the direction of Trotskyist politics.

The anti-Vietnam war movement in the US was sparked by middle class student youth no longer exempted from the draft. It spread, a vast mobilisation of young people outraged at the great world power bombing Vietnam into the Stone Age, all across the bourgeois-democratic world.

The “Tet Offensive” at the beginning of 1968, when the Vietnamese Stalinists captured the US “embassy”, was an inspiration to people all over the world: militancy, combativity, could work wonders.

In October 1967, Che Guevara was captured in Bolivia and butchered; his Christ-like portrait adorned millions of T-shirts. “Che” was seen only as a revolutionary — an enemy of the the European Communist Parties’ dogma of the “parliamentary road to socialism”.

Britain was in a financial crisis that had led in November 1967 to the devaluation of the pound. Despair at the Wilson government settled like fog on the labour movement. Reformism is dead! So a lot of people concluded. But the rank and file of the unions were full of life and fight. Strikes were very common:

“Working-class industrial direct action is the alternative to parliamentary reformism”!

Simultaneously, an eruption of working-class racism — triggered by the government’s decision to bar entry for British passport-holding Asians expelled from Kenya, and a vile anti-immigrant speech by the Tory, Enoch Powell — showed that industrial militancy was not enough. Workers needed a “revolutionary party” too, to educate them and others.

Russian Stalinism and the European CPs were shown up for what they were by two events.

In May 9-10 million French workers struck and seized the factories. At first they didn’t want to negotiate: instinctively, they wanted more than reforms. The French Communist Party, the main party of the French workers, was as startled as the De Gaulle government. Revolution? This is 1968! So they helped De Gaulle ride out the strike and demobilise it with promises of improvements in the workers’ conditions.

In Czechoslovakia, where there was a strong communist tradition (there had been a mass Communist Party before World War Two), the ruling CP split over what to do in the economy. They took their differences into the factories, for discussion, thus taking off the Stalinist gag that had stopped the working class speaking for 20 years.

The reformists around Alexander Dubcek — an old communist militant and son of such people — beat the old guard around Antonín Novotny and proclaimed the advent of “socialism with a human face.” It was a tremendous criticism, open and implicit, of the Stalinist “communism” that had a decidedly inhuman face in Russia and the rest of the Stalinist world.

Democratic working-class socialism seemed on the verge of triumphing in Czechoslovakia. And it was likely to spread.

So, on 20 August, the 28th anniversary of the day in 1940 when Stalin’s assassin struck down Trotsky, the Russians and other East European Stalinist armies invaded Czechoslovakia and killed “socialism with a human face”.

Revolutionary-minded young people everywhere had a sudden, very clear picture of what Russian Stalinism was, imprinted on their minds.

At the same time, in Poland, the once-reforming Gomulka regime installed in 1956 was dragging its own dead weight towards the December 1970 mass slaughter of striking shipyard workers at Gdansk (where Solidarnosc would be born in 1980, in tremendous strikes). A faction of the Polish Communist Party started a vicious anti-Jewish agitation in a country where all but a few thousand of the Jews who had numbered three million in 1939 had been slaughtered by the Nazis.

That lesson passed unnoticed in a left increasingly hostile to Israel for its occupation (since June 1967) of the West Bank and Gaza.

So everything urged young people in the direction of the politics of Lenin and Trotsky? Not quite everything. God had had second thoughts. “Why should I make life too easy for the Trots? What have they ever done for me?”

So to complicate things, not all varieties of Stalinism were shown up for what they were. A new pseudo-revolutionary Stalinism was raised to prominence.

The Vietnamese fighting the Americans were Stalinists (Stalinists who, led by Ho Chi Minh, had butchered Vietnamese Trotskyists, who had had a strong presence in the towns in the mid-1940s). Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators chanted: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / We shall fight and we shall win!”

And in China, Mao Tse-tung had in mid-1966 launched his “cultural revolution”. The Chinese army-controlled “Red Guards”, gangs of youth, waving “little Red Books” of Quotations from “Chairman Mao” rampaged through China denouncing “bureaucracy” and the opponents of Mao — people “in authority taking the capitalist road”, as the official formula went.

An orgy of lunacy engulfed China. Mao’s thoughts were reported in the official press and radio as empowering its devotees to work miracles, like the miracles at Lourdes and Fatima, and Knock, only wholesale and with guaranteed results. Doctors could cure 90 degree burns, farmers grow crops in a desert, athletes break world records — all with the aid of “Mao-thoughts”. Higher education was abolished in China, for a decade!

But it all seemed very “revolutionary” — and utterly confusing to the newly revolutionary-minded youth in the west.

If most of the “lessons” and impressions people took from events were, properly understood, “Trotskyist”, they could also be assimilated to “revolutionary Stalinism”. The lessons from China favoured a virulently crazy Maoist Stalinism.

Some Trotskyists, a minority but in Britain the main Trotkskyist organization, the Socialist Labour League of Gerry Healy, supported the cultural revolution!

And not only in relation to Maoism: some ostensible Trotskyists drew “Stalinist” conclusions, pretending that North Vietnam was a socialist state.

The newly politicized youth spread through the left like an alluvial flood, reinforcing, replenishing, encouraging, renewing; but Maoists were the main beneficiaries in the west, again with the partial exception of Britain, where “Trotskyists” always outnumbered Maoists.

What was created politically was a confused jumble — new permutations of the older elements.